Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Research
Diversity Digest Volume 9, Number 2

Diversity Digest
Volume 10,
Number 1

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Campus-Community Involvement
Student Leadership: Making a Difference in the World
Access to Education, Opportunity to Serve
Berea College: Learning, Labor, and Service
A Developmental and Capacity-Building Model for Community Partnerships
The Power of a Sustained Relationship between Community Partners and Colleges and Universities
Faculty Involvement
Prequel to Civic Engagement: An African American Studies Research Seminar
Service Learning and Policy Change
Facilitating Student Growth as Citizens: A Developmental Model for Community-Engaged Learning
Student Experience
An Intentional and Comprehensive Student Development Model
Bonner: More Than a Model, a Lived Experience
Relationships First
Commitment to a Cause
Institutional Leadership
Preparing to Serve
Checklist from the President’s Chair
Curricular Transformation
LifeWorks and the Commons: A Model for General Education
The Case for Studying Poverty
Engaging with Difference Matters: Longitudinal Outcomes of the Cocurricular Bonner Scholars Program
Resources for Civic Engagement
Serving, Voting, and Speaking Out: Bonner Students Reflect on Civic Engagement

Engaging with Difference Matters: Longitudinal Outcomes of the Cocurricular Bonner Scholars Program

By Cheryl Keen, senior researcher for the Bonner Foundation and chair of student success for Walden University’s PhD in education program

Few studies of service learning provide longitudinal data beyond the length of a semester, comparisons across types of colleges, or on the effect of the experience on students’ perceptions of diversity and social justice. The seven-year longitudinal study of the Bonner scholars program that is now drawing to a close offers an opportunity to help the field improve its practice, both academically and in cocurricular programs, and make strategic use of scarce resources in supporting service learning.* An initial review of the findings from this research demonstrates that the powerful program elements described in Ariane Hoy’s and Wayne Meisel’s articles in this issue provide guideposts for designing cocurricular and academic service-learning programs for personal, academic, civic, and diversity outcomes.

In conducting the study, researchers surveyed two cohorts three times in their four years of college. The data pool involved over nine hundred students from the classes of 2003 and 2004 on twenty-five Bonner campuses. The researchers also surveyed Bonner leaders in the two-year program, and worked with the University of California–Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute’s “Life After College” study to compare forty Bonner scholar alumni from ten campuses with other alumni from their colleges, ten similar liberal arts colleges, and the national sample. The survey revealed that the gains did not disappear three years after college.

The researchers’ interest in the Bonner Scholars Program stemmed primarily from long-term work on clarifying how people develop and sustain commitments to working on behalf of the common good in an age of diversity, ambiguity, and complexity. The book I coauthored in 1996 with Larry Daloz, Jim Keen, and Sharon Parks, Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World, marked the culmination of more than a decade of research into this question. That study pointed to an enlarging encounter with otherness in which some person or group that had previously been an external “they” came to be included in a newly reframed sense of “we.”

This earlier research led those researching the Bonner Scholars Program to believe that contexts in which young adults cross thresholds of difference—such as those involving ethnicity, religion, culture, and social class—play a significant role in the development of sustainable commitments to civic, international, and social justice concerns. This is even more likely to be the case when the experience of such encounters and their contexts is part of a comprehensive program such as the Bonner Scholars Program. Through mentoring, reflection, and dialogue, Bonner scholars make sense out of their experience, grow and learn from it, and ultimately make use of it in developing critical, systemic understandings that are anchored by compassionate approaches to human need. Research suggests that the Bonner Scholars Program is probably as effective an incubator for the formation of sustainable adult commitments as we are likely to find.

Major Findings

The researchers identified several major findings that both support existing program models and provide guidance for campuses in the process of developing or assessing their own models. The first of these is that the senior year matters. The researchers found that seniors more often than juniors agreed or strongly agreed that they gained desired program outcomes. Four years of engagement makes a difference, although two years in the sister Bonner Leader Program also resulted in significant gains.

The data also show that social justice concerns develop by senior year, meaning that seniors were much more likely than juniors to appreciate the opportunity provided by the Bonner Scholars Program to “understand the root causes of social justice issues.” Program elements that were strongly associated with student gains in understanding social justice issues included the degree to which the program provoked thought about course material, the opportunity to serve those from backgrounds different from students’ own, and the belief that the program affected skills students needed to do service.

The researchers also found that dialogue across difference is critical. Comparison of responses from juniors and seniors suggests that a program conducive to intellectual development would provide plenty of opportunity for dialogue across difference in the first two and a half years of college and then consolidate that experience through the senior year in mature discussions of social justice with peers, community members, and faculty.

Finally, the Bonner program model supports civic development. Engagement in the program design supported students’ affirmation of the Bonner Scholars Program’s “common commitments”: maintaining or developing civic engagement (voting, participating in democratic deliberation, etc.), respecting and engaging the many different dimensions of diversity, developing an international perspective, building community-based partnerships, and working for social justice.

Unexpected Findings

In addition to the major findings presented above, researchers also discovered several surprises. First, the number of service-learning courses scholars took has a weak association with program outcomes. The findings affirm the power of cocurricular programming to reach desired developmental gains.

Second, international service did not affect program outcomes. About twenty-five percent of the scholars had an international service experience of seven weeks or more. Seven weeks of international service may not be long enough to affect development, or the gains may take a couple of years to come to fruition.

Third, the type of college the Bonner students attended mattered little. Service-learning experiences and program design mattered more than type of college attended. The only modest finding in terms of type of college was that the students from faith-based institutions had a significantly similar experience to those from economically and racially diverse campuses. And finally, no single variable correlated with voting in the last election.


The Bonner Scholars Program’s design is one of cocurricular service learning. The question of whether learning takes place outside the formal curriculum is an old one. Research into the program can be placed alongside the findings of researchers who have documented the power of engaged learning in and outside the classroom to affect student learning and success.

The program’s design is predicated on the assumption that entering communities to do real service across lines of perceived difference can be very challenging and that students and communities will gain more if the student is supported by financial resources, the campus administration, and peers and faculty in informal and formal settings for reflection and study. The Bonner Foundation has supported the exploration of several ways that colleges and universities can capture the developmental power and civic contribution of service learning without relying on faculty to offer service-learning classes. The study’s results challenge the implicit assumption in the field that service learning is synonymous with academic service learning.


*This research has been conducted by Kelly Hall, Tom Plaut, Jim Keen, and Cheryl Keen, and was supported by the Bonner Foundation and the Ford Foundation through the Center for Social Development at University of Washington–St. Louis. A full report will soon be available.

Questions, comments, and suggested resources should be directed to campbell@aacu.org.
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